By Parfait Gasana

Joseph Nye, distinguished professor of service and former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, famously said the following: “Soft power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcome you want” (Nye). In a world that is experiencing a spike in terrorist activities with spectacular displays of cruelty, soft power is politically harder to sustain but even more essential for effective governance. For the U.S., recent rhetoric on the campaign trail (Donald Trump suggested that all Muslims be banned from entering the U.S., or Ted Cruz who suggested that they carpet bomb areas that pose a threat to the U.S.) threaten more than just America’s loss of leadership in rallying the world in the fight against terrorism. Politics like this will alienate Arab countries; without whom the war on terror is already lost.

There is no doubt that America maintains an edge over all other countries in the world in terms of military might. The U.S. Defense budget is estimated at $585.2 Billion for fiscal year 2016, while that of Russia is estimated to be at $50 Billion in 2016. However, American leadership is only effective when the U.S. successfully deploys both military and diplomatic tools at its disposal. Failure to strategically deploy these tools undermines U.S leadership and prevents it from building bridges of trust. This is even more important after America’s military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other Muslim countries. The toxic and inflammatory rhetoric seen recently on the campaign trail threatens America’s ability to gain a diplomatic upper hand.

The U.S. should be doing more to boost its public diplomacy efforts, not undermine them. This is important because as Nye states, “soft power is a staple of daily democratic politics” (Nye). With more than 9000 air strikes in Syria and Iraq since the campaign against ISIL begun, coupled with ISIL’s ability to still recruit, gain sympathizers in Western capitals, loosing the public diplomacy battle is a strategic blunder that should not be allowed to happen. Yet, this is exactly what the crop of republican candidates have offered in their language on the fight against terrorism.

One of the central components of soft power, according to Nye, is its foreign policy (Nye). America’s foreign policy as it currently stands has indisputably challenged its diplomatic leverage. In many countries, the U.S. has lost its “legitimate… moral authority” (Nye).

Perceptions matter and how one is perceived can be the deciding factor in politics. Those who witnessed the debate between Kennedy and Nixon would remember his perspiring face next to the calm and well-controlled Kennedy. Kennedy was perceived by many to be ready and charismatic, while Nixon looked uncomfortable and unprepared. With the rising threat of lone wolves, the ability of non-state actors including terrorists groups to use social media to recruit in the West, how can the U.S. build its soft power to counter the message of hate and terror? The divisive rhetoric and at times outright racist comments made by some republican candidates for the White House can only contribute to a decline in America’s soft power, and, by extension, a less safe world.

It would be wise for the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and others to think beyond the primaries, and even the general election to what kind of a world they would face on day one after taking office should they be elected. Would it be a world ready to welcome and partner with the new U.S leadership, or one that sees the U.S as seeking to antagonize them? The complexity of current global governance issues require consensus building, and the broadening of coalitions as the Paris Climate talks demonstrated. As we push deep into the 21st century, successful leaders are going to be those who can appreciate international trends such as the increasing power of social media and non-state actors, and the challenges these pose to traditional governing bodies. In such a world, a wise leader would pay just as much attention to the power and effectiveness of public diplomacy, as they would that of military capabilities.


The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 616, Public Diplomacy in a Changing World (Mar., 2008), pp. 94-109 published by Sage Publications, Inc.